Pakistan's complicated relationship with Islamic militant groups, its internal and external strategic aims and its need for Western aid and support is hindering progress in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Pakistan both fights and supports the Taliban insurgency
More than eight years on from the US-led invasion of Afghanistan which forced the Taliban from power and sent its al Qaeda allies into hiding, the somewhat naïve objective of a democratic and stable Afghanistan free of fundamentalists and terrorists seems as far away as ever.
The Taliban is resurgent, al Qaeda has returned and the Western-backed Afghan government has even less credibility after the chaos of last year's fraudulent presidential elections continues to reverberate. Western military planners appear to be at a loss as to how to end an increasingly difficult war which looked to have been won in the early months of 2002.
Representatives of those nations involved with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) meet with officials from the Afghan government this week in London in an attempt to find a way out of this seemingly intractable conflict. One of the most important aspects of any discussion will be Pakistan's role in ending the counter-insurgency and its potential involvement in the stabilization of a post-war Afghanistan.
Pakistan has long been seen as the key to success against the Taliban insurgency. While the Taliban has returned in significant numbers to its heartlands in the southern provinces of Afghanistan, the tribal areas along the Afghan border inside Pakistan are accepted as being the main center of operations from which the insurgency is planned and executed.
Mixed messages from Pakistan's tribal region offensive
Pakistan's offensive has made gains in South Waziristan
In what appears to be a concerted effort to eliminate the Taliban in the restive tribal regions of North and South Waziristan, Pakistan launched an on-going military offensive last October. Pakistan has since claimed victories in South Waziristan where its army has dismantled Taliban bases and infrastructure while expelling thousands of their fighters from the region over which they once had complete control.
On the surface, it appears that Pakistan is making good on the promises it made to the Bush administration in the first years of the war when then President Pervez Musharraf agreed to help in the 'war on terror' in exchange for financial and military aid from the United States.
Pro-government Taliban in north remain free
However, while the operation in South Waziristan has seen some positive results, this is offset by Pakistan's apparent reluctance to target insurgents who infiltrate into Afghanistan from North Waziristan to attack the foreign forces across the border.
So far, the Pakistani Army has only hit militants which it holds responsible for attacks within Pakistan, leaving thousands of pro-government Taliban fighters in North Waziristan to freely cross the border to strike NATO troops on the other side.
The complicated involvement of Pakistan both in fighting and facilitating the insurgency is based on its long-term internal and external strategic policies as well as its concern over its economic interests.
History of cultivating militant groups for own ends
The Taliban operates freely from North Waziristan
Pakistan, a country which has been ruled by military dictatorships for most of its 62 years of existence, has long fostered a policy of using Islamic militant groups for its own ends, specifically in its proxy war with India over Kashmir. These militant groups, both trained and funded by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - Pakistan's secret service, have in turn found their own battles to fight, namely the jihad against Western forces in Afghanistan.
"It's an open secret that the military and intelligence services still have a hand in supporting what they call their strategic assets," Dr. Farzana Shaikh, the director of the Pakistan Study Group at the Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House in London, told Deutsche Welle. "These are mainly groups attached to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and are groups which Pakistan could use in the event of a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan to ensure their interests there are not compromised.
The fear is that India will expand the influence its been gaining since 9/11 in Afghanistan, and Pakistan sees these Taliban-affiliated groups in North Waziristan as a handy bunch to have around and so they are very reluctant to take on these groups who could be assets in the future."
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